Monday 7 November 2011

Vote No on Initiative 1125 if you support better road pricing

I don't have a particular personal interest in the State of Washington, since I've never actually been there.  However, I do have an interest in good public policy on road pricing.  Initiative 1125, which comes up for a vote on 8 November, is not an example of this.

It is being promoted by activist Tim Eyman, who frankly has taken stands on a number of issues that I would support, since I tend to be in favour of free market oriented solutions and prefer to err on the side of less government intervention over more.   However, as I have written before, I believe on balance, that while i understand his motives, on this occasion, he is wrong.

In September I said Initiative 1125 had good intentions.  I can understand not wanting money collected from road users to be spent on anything other than the roads themselves, but to clumsily only link tolls to the projects they are specifically on limits what can be done to replace fuel taxes over time.  Ultimately, I believe tolls of one form or another, will be applied to all major roads and perhaps all roads, as fuel tax becomes unsustainable.  This initiative would block that.  Similarly, the idea that a road is "paid off" and no longer needs to be paid for, doesn't really bear close scrutiny.

The key problem being that roads always need new capital put into them to be operational.  It is like building a house and assuming you never need to paint it, fix the roof, fix gutters, replace pilings or the like over time.   The setting of tolls should take into account recover of capital for long and short life assets, bearing in mind renewals will eventually be needed for major assets such as bridges.  It is a failure to consider roads like other assets that has seen so many bridges fall into disrepair.  

Beyond that is to consider congestion pricing, and what to do with surpluses from tolls.  The advantages of congestion pricing in terms of improving productivity, reducing delays and emissions are potentially enormous.  Initiative 1125 would stop this because the revenue wouldn't be spent on the roads subject to congestion pricing.  Even if you support using congestion pricing to engage in wider tax reform (e.g. replacing other taxes for money used to spend on road), it wouldn't be allowed.

He could have stuck to the first provision of the initiative (Prohibit state government from diverting gas taxes and toll revenues in the motor vehicle fund or other funds to the general fund or other funds and used for non-transportation purposes”), and I would not have found it problematic, but the rest makes it unacceptable.

The Olympian reports:

This is a typical Eyman initiative that overreaches and attempts to tackle multiple issues with a single initiative. By cluttering I-1125 with multiple requirements, Eyman has torpedoed his own effort. Toll rates should be set as close to the users as possible, not by lawmakers trading political favors in Olympia.

The Yes campaign website says tolls should only be used for "capital costs", presuming capital costs cease to exist at some point.  It seems to suggest congestion pricing is "politically correct social engineering designed to raise the congestion misery index high enough to force you out of your car."  Nothing is more politically correct than running roads in the traditional Soviet style manner of taxing users on an equivalent basis.   However, while I have some sympathy for those who question spending large amounts of money raised from road users on politically driven, financially unsustainable and economically inefficient public transport projects (and road projects), this initiative not only doesn't deliver for supporters of more market oriented approaches to roads, but is positively contrary to it.  Some of what the yes campaign says I agree with, but the ends do not justify the means, and the means are contrary to the philosophy driving the ends.

So while the No campaign looks like primarily a campaign from labor unions, Democrats and environmental groups, it should also be supported by those who believe in more economically rational pricing of roads and indeed may even interfere with privately owned toll roads if they were to be built.

So although I have some reservations about opposing the initiative, I believe those who DO support better pricing of roads, who think fuel tax is a poor way of pricing for road use and think tolls, HOT lanes, congestion pricing and ultimately network wide pricing are worthy tools for the future, should reject Initiative 1125.  Boeing and Microsoft already are opposing it.

Initiative 1125 is being returned by postal ballot by 8 November, it is one of several other ballots on the day.

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